Three years ago, poet and O, Miami founder P. Scott Cunningham was gearing up for his annual monthlong poetry festival. March is the busiest month for the organizer because he finalizes any missing details for the April event. He began to feel under the weather and was certain it was nothing serious, probably just a cold. He could push through it and keep working; everything would be fine.
Four days into O, Miami 2017, Cunningham passed out and didn't wake up until nearly a full day later. His wife had rushed him to the hospital. Turned out Cunningham had something a bit more severe than a cold or flu. He was diagnosed with viral encephalitis, an infection that affects the brain and causes seizures.
“It was a sobering experience,” Cunningham says in retrospect. “It taught me that balance is important in all things. It was all normal until it was too late and it wasn’t normal anymore. I think [the coronavirus] is the same thing. You can’t really see the danger until the danger is there. All you can do is take precautions.”
Three years later, that memory is more relevant than ever for Cunningham and his family as the outbreak of the novel coronavirus threatens the community. The festival's board of directors decided in early March to cancel the April festival. The decision was unanimous, he says.
In-person events are off the table this year, but “we also talked about what we could do if we couldn’t meet,” Cunningham tells New Times. One day after canceling the events, the O, Miami team commenced planning a virtual, wholly online poetry experience.
It took Cunningham and his crew two weeks to draw up a blueprint for the new festival, which runs through April 29. "It was kind of nice to be able to focus on something that was positive and felt like a break from the stress of everything else," he says.
The increasing popularity and ease of use of the video-conferencing service Zoom took much of the grunt work out of putting on a virtual festival. All of the workshops are organized as Zoom meetings. When a patron registers for an event on omiami.org, they'll get a confirmation email that contains the meeting ID.
“I think this is the first time a lot of people have attended a Zoom poetry reading or workshop,” Cunningham says with a laugh. “We’ve never done anything exactly like this. It’s an experiment for us and an experiment for the audience too.”
The virtual program is almost identical to the original lineup. About 85 percent of the workshops and readings are free, Cunningham says, and a few are priced on a sliding scale. Part of the reason for still charging fees for some workshops is to ensure those who sign up attend — this is Miami, after all. Also, poets need to get paid.
“It was important for us to honor the artist fees that we'd already committed to,” Cunningham says. “A lot of the poets we’re working with this month make a living from appearance fees, and almost everything [they had scheduled] after O, Miami got canceled.”
A father of two, Cunningham says he’s most looking forward to the children’s poetry workshops. It can be taxing keeping little ones entertained, especially during a stay-at-home order. “I see firsthand how great it is when there’s an activity you can actually do with your kid when you’re stuck inside,” he says, adding how he’ll participate in those workshops with his kids.
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Since its inception nearly a decade ago, O, Miami has aimed to have a poem reach every person in the city during April. And in these crazy, pandemic-stricken times, perhaps a poem is exactly what people need now more than ever.
The festival is already looking ahead to 2021, which will mark O, Miami's tenth anniversary.
“I think there’s definitely some uncertainty for next year,” Cunningham admits. “But no matter what, we will work with what we have and put on the best possible festival that we can. We’ll make the best of it no matter what the situation is.”
O, Miami Poetry Festival. Daily through Wednesday, April 29. Visit omiami.org for tickets and a complete lineup.